Is There Nature In Iowa? A Story of the Loess Hills

Last week I was lucky enough to have my post, Does It Have to Be Wilderness? featured on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed blog. It was an amazing experience to see that post resonate with so many people and I loved reading the comments everyone had on the topic. I did find quite a few people, however, who admitted that they didn’t know what kinds of natural wonders could exist in Iowa. It wasn’t a complete surprise to me. I know that Iowa is considered a flyover state, and when you do fly over it looks flat and covered in fields.

This is probably kind of what you're thinking, right? Photo Credit Flickr Creative Commons user carlwwycoff

This is probably kind of what you’re thinking, right? Photo Credit Flickr Creative Commons user carlwwycoff

This is largely accurate. Iowa is the most altered state in the United States. At one time the state was covered in prairie, but less than one percent of our native grasslands exist today. That prairie existed on rich soil that was ideal for growing crops like corn and soybeans. So, in the name of progress, my ancestors tilled up that prairie and planted fields.

The red represents prairie. On the left you can see what Iowa historically looked like, and what we look like now. Map was created by Rob Fletcher, Robin McNeely, and the Iowa Gap Analysis Program at the Department of Animal Ecology, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

The red represents prairie. On the left you can see what Iowa historically looked like, and what we look like now. Map was created by Rob Fletcher, Robin McNeely, and the Iowa Gap Analysis Program at the Department of Animal Ecology, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

There are a few parts of the state where prairie can be found in greater abundance. One area that is quite famous, although not famous enough, is the Loess Hills. I have talked about the hills on this blog in the past, namely after my visit to the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar. That trip inspired me to write the post, Do People Care to Read About Nature? Apparently I like to ask a lot of questions on my blog.

After seeing CNN’s 50 Natural Wonders article, it occurred to me that most of you probably don’t know what the Loess Hills are. The article features a natural wonder from each state, including Iowa’s Loess Hills. What they got right is that The Nature Conservancy‘s Broken Kettle Grasslands is an amazing representation of the Loess Hills and a wonderful place to visit. I’ve been there a few times (full disclosure, I currently work for The Nature Conservancy but I would be writing this even if I didn’t) and it is a truly magical place. Really one of the only places you can sit in complete silence for miles around you.

I am terrible at explaining geological processes, so I will rely on the U.S. Geological Survey to do it for me.

During the Ice Age, glaciers advanced down into the mid-continent of North America, grinding underlying rock into a fine powderlike sediment called “glacial flour.” As temperatures warmed, the glaciers melted and enormous amounts of water and sediment rushed down the Missouri River valley. The sediment was eventually deposited on flood plains downstream, creating huge mud flats.

During the winters the meltwaters would recede, leaving the mud flats exposed. As they dried, fine-grained mud material called silt was picked up and carried by strong winds. These large dust clouds were moved eastward by prevailing westerly winds and were redeposited over broad areas. Heavier, coarser silt, deposited closest to its Missouri River flood plain source, formed sharp, high bluffs on the western margin of the Loess Hills. Finer, lighter silt, deposited farther east, created gently sloping hills on the eastern margin. This process repeated for thousands of years, building layer upon layer until the loess reached thicknesses of 60 feet or more and became the dominant feature of the terrain.

You can read more about the geology of the hills at this website.

So you now understand that these hills were formed through a pretty cool and interesting process in America’s natural history. What you might not realize is how rare these deposits are. Loess deposits that are as deep as the Loess Hills only exist in one other part of the world: China. It’s a unique landform–which is why I was really disappointed to see the photo in CNN’s article wasn’t representative of the Loess Hills at all. You can take a look at their feature here, but know that the Loess Hills is a beautiful place that looks like this:

Loess Hills, Iowa, Photo Credit Terra Ash Bruxvoort

Loess Hills, Iowa, Photo Credit Terra Ash Bruxvoort

Broken Kettle Grasslands, Photo Credit Terra Ash Bruxvoort

Broken Kettle Grasslands, Photo Credit Terra Ash Bruxvoort

And because the photos I have the rights to are limited, I’m going to direct you to this post at The Prairie Ecologist where photographer Chris Helzer shares one of my favorite photos of Broken Kettle Grasslands ever.

So that brings me to the original question so many of you seem to be asking: Is there nature in Iowa? 

My answer: Yes, nature is everywhere. And Iowa has beautiful landscapes, plants and animals. I like to say we can do skies better than anyone else. Nature is everywhere, but you have to open your eyes and look for it. 

Now that's a sky. Photo credit Terra Ash Bruxvoort

Now that’s a sky. Photo credit Terra Ash Bruxvoort

And there is more nature in Iowa than the Loess Hills. I was just spurred to write about them because of the article on CNN. You realize I live in Iowa (I think of made that clear, right?) and this entire blog is about nature. I live in the middle of Des Moines, which is a city full of great parks and interesting natural areas. There are prairies and savannas across the state and lots of amazing places to visit.

I hope this blog helps you deepen your own personal connection with nature, but I also hope it helps you realize that places like Iowa are beautiful and amazing even if we’re slightly altered. Because really, at the end of day, we’re all a lot like Iowa: Imperfect and torn with some questionable decisions in our past. But we keep on moving forward, and there is beauty within all of us.

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5 thoughts on “Is There Nature In Iowa? A Story of the Loess Hills

  1. Great post Terra. The Loess Hills are on my Iowa road trip bucket list. I love the northeastern corner of Iowa. Great parks, hiking and CAVES! I used to belong to the Iowa Grotto. Are you familiar with Coldwater Cave? Many fond memories of my (too few!) spelunking exploits in this beautiful part of our fair state.

  2. I appreciate your writing this. I grew up in California and had always lived close to the mountains. When I moved to Texas to go to gradschool, I suddenly realized how important they were to me, but, more importantly, how important the wilderness was. Stuck out on the plains for a few years, I developed a love for those small oasis of terrain and wild land amidst the agricultural seas. Of the places I was able to explore, my favorite was Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains. They are definitely worth a visit if passing through that neck of the woods:
    http://www.summitpost.org/charon-s-garden-wilderness/274583

    • Thanks for the tip! I’m hoping to do quite a bit of traveling in the next couple of years to see more of the great natural areas across the country and I’m always looking for more to add to my list!

  3. I remember being on an organized trip in The Boundary Waters, and we explored the meaning of wilderness. Our guides played a game with us…to see if we could go a whole day without seeing another person (other than the people in our group of 12). It works. But, sometimes I play the same game on my suburban deck, in my backyard, with my binocs and some concentrated nature watching. A day without other people can be restorative.

  4. Yes, nature is everywhere. Here in Connecticut we have traprock ridges, interesting and unique geological features formed from the splitting apart of Pangaea. Now they are noted for their varied an unusual microclimates.

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